This is a true story, accurate to the best of my ability to recount.
The time: Winter of 1983
The setting: Rural south, USA
Kim [not her real name] started hanging out with me and my Charismatic friends from FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) during our second year of college. She was an odd girl, but nothing over the top. Just a tad quirky. And I liked quirky!
Right before she left for Christmas break she asked if she could stay at my parent’s house for 2 nights upon her return as her landlord would be painting her apartment. I was a college student living at home at that time, so I asked my parents and they agreed… it was all set.
Two days before her return I got this horrible sense of foreboding. Absolute dread. In fact, I had a sense of danger. I did not want Kim in my house. But it was totally out of left field with a basis in absolutely nothing. So I dismissed the gut feeling.
Upon her arrival, I knew something was off but couldn’t put a finger on it. Ever had that happen? Something just isn’t right, but by all outward appearances, there’s no reason to act on the feeling? I again shrugged it off.
I set her up in the guest room for the night and went to bed.
As I headed to my room, I had this overwhelming urge to lock the door to that wing of the house where mine and my parents bedroom was. I wanted to lock my bedroom door, as well.
I stood staring at the knob. I’m just being silly, I thought. I closed both doors, but I didn’t lock them.
The next morning I awoke unusually early, turned over in bed only to find she’d let herself into my bedroom and was standing there in a flowing white nightgown, just glaring down at me. Straight out of a horror movie. I gasped and said, “Kim! What are you doing?” She mumbled a response like, I just wondered if you were up.
The next night I DID lock the doors. She left the following day without further incident and I shook it off in spite of her brazen violation of boundaries.
Kim fell off my radar for a month or so because I got married. But once my husband and I got settled into our new apartment and into our new routine, I began to take notice of her again.
What I saw was very strange and within weeks, the situation grew alarming.
Kim began making the claim that God told her she was the Angel of Laodicea. On top of that, she believed that she’d been called by God to Africa where I would be her disciple along with my new husband. She further claimed that God showed her that she was to marry one of our mutual friends, a guy I’ll call Steve.
Kim’s delusions escalated as her claims got louder with each passing week. There was a level of fixation on me that set my hair on end.
One evening at an FCA meeting, I spotted her from across a large, crowded room. She was talking to a group of girls in an animated fashion. Whatever she was saying had their undivided attention. Then she abruptly stopped, turned her head toward me and glared like she was shooting daggers from her eyes.
The look on her face scared me. Really scared me. It was all wrong.
Given my state of mind, my thought wasn’t fear for my physical safety. My immediate thought was that there might be a demon in her that could attack me spiritually. So, thinking that love conquers evil, I mouthed the words from across the room, I love you.
In an instant, her entire countenance changed. The wicked, weird look about her melted away, sliding off her chin leaving behind a sweet, cherub face. She smiled back and waved at me in a flirtatious manner. Coy and shy, like a middle schooler trying to get the attention of a crush.
It was beyond weird … Gave me chills. I stood frozen trying to make sense of it.
As the weeks progressed and her behavior grew stranger, many of us became convinced that Kim was possessed by a devil. While I can’t recall what it was that Kim did one night at our charismatic church, whatever it was prompted about a dozen members to encircle her and try to cast Satan out. She stood in the foyer as we gathered around praying in tongues and saying, You devil! Come out of her! Leave Kim alone!
Everything came to a head the following week when Kim showed up at Steve’s house with a knife in her hand. I have no idea what specific thought drove her to this point, but Steve’s parents were already on high alert. They knew about her claims to marry their son, they also knew about the claim that we were to be her disciples in Africa, and they’d been a part of the attempted exorcism at the church the week before. They stepped in and thwarted her violent plan against Steve.
No one got hurt in the knife incident, but Steve’s father called Kim’s parents that night. They immediately came to town to collect her. She was gone the rest of the year.
In the aftermath, Kim’s parents blamed the church for whatever it was that was happening to their daughter claiming our church was a cult that had brainwashed her.
In reconstructing this incident here, I’m overwhelmed and appalled at the many failures along the way by myself and by our church leadership. Were we culpable? Damn straight we were culpable. And it makes my stomach turn thinking on the role I played.
I can’t explain animal instincts. I can’t explain how I sensed danger a full two days before her arrival at my house. Maybe I had observed subtle behaviors I didn’t consciously recognize? In any case, what I once believed was the holy spirit, I now see as an innate warning signal of a primal sort. How it is that we humans can know and sense danger before it happens is a fascinating phenomena, but it’s not a spiritual one. It’s an animal thing. And I had ignored it.
I don’t fault myself for that. Acting appropriately on a gut feeling is a tricky maneuver and can go wrong. What I do fault myself for is ignoring the danger signs of a young woman in mental peril as her symptoms unfolded with greater clarity. Yes, I was young and inexperienced, but I could see like everyone else that this young woman was mentally unraveling. And yet, rather than call her parents immediately so she could get to a doctor, we invited Satan into this mix. And I was right there in the thick of it.
I am NOT a psychiatrist and have no training in diagnosing mental illness, but, in hindsight, she had all the classic symptoms of schizophrenia. Hearing voices, delusions of grandeur, disorganized thinking. Whether that was her ultimate diagnosis, I don’t know, but the signs were all there, playing out like a bad B movie… and what did we do?
We tried to cast out a devil.
Picture Kim, in mental confusion standing in the middle of a circle of nut jobs, yelling, “Come out of her you devil in the name of Jesus!” Can you put yourself in her shoes and imagine the confusion, the fear, the horror as she sunk further into her illness?
I write this because what happened to Kim is happening in churches today all over the world in the name of Jesus and in the name of other false gods. It’s real and it’s dangerous and the mentally ill and the physically sick get victimized by religious dogma that fails every time and makes situations dangerously worse.
Kim didn’t need a god. She needed a doctor. We intended for good… but that’s no excuse for the abuse we inflicted upon her.
I feel great shame and sorrow for Kim and the role I played in her torment as her mind failed her.
No matter how painful, incidents like this one convince me to continue to tell my stories.